Oh please! Dig me a bunker, and bury it deep. There let me spend the next four years watching La La Land on endless repeat, safe from the horrors of the Trumpian, post-Brexit wasteland above, in a feather-bed of fantasy, blissfully out of touch with reality.
If the foregoing sounds a shade sardonic about Damien Chazelle’s garlanded new film, it’s not meant to be – simply a statement that in these dark and fearful times it feels good to be bathed in the romantic aura of a decently made film, that most of us feel that moving to La La Land, an old metaphor for a fantasy bubble somewhere over the rainbow, would not be such a bad thing. Not that La La Land is truly romantic, as I’ll suggest.
From its opening moments La La Land is pure joy. This is the much-trailed sequence in which motorists caught up in a traffic jam on the slip road of the LA freeway burst into an energetic song and dance routine as the camera swirls around them. ‘It’s Another Day of Sun’ their song proclaims (and indeed, in this film divided into four chapters labelled with the names of the seasons, it’s always sunny and warm; the sky is blue, the colours pop).
With this bravura overture, La La Land signals what kind of film it will be: one in the tradition of classic Hollywood musicals from the era of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers partnership through to Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris. (And there are more Parisian references – to the over-saturated colours of The Red Balloon or films by Jacques Demy: there’s a handy guide to all the movie references in La La Land here.) Just to add to the frisson, the film has opened with the classic Cinemascope ident.
Stuck in the traffic jam is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a cafe on the Warner Brothers lot in Hollywood. Stuck behind her in the queue is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist who has dreams of owning his own jazz club. When Mia, busy with a script for an audition, doesn’t see traffic start to move, Seb gives her a blast on his horn, and she responds with the finger. With this unpromising beginning, our two main characters are introduced. Their paths will cross a couple more times before the anticipated romance begins.
Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I didn’t think so.
That exchange is an example of the film’s crisp writing, reinforced by the strength of the acting by Stone and Gosling (there aren’t that many more significant parts to make judgements about). The second time the pair meet is on Christmas Eve, when Sebastian is fired from his job as the pianist in a chic restaurant for slipping a little too much bebop into the jingle bells:
Bill: You’re fired.
Sebastian: It’s Christmas.
Bill: Yeah, I see the decorations. Good luck in the New Year.
This scene introduces us to Sebastian’s chief character trait: he likes jazz, doesn’t think much of people who don’t, and is unwilling to sacrifice his musical integrity by playing anything he regards as degraded jazz.
Sebastian: What do you mean you don’t like jazz?
Mia: It just means that when I listen to it, I don’t like it.
Straightaway, Sebastian drags her off to a jazz club where ‘real jazz’ can be heard (in Seb’s eyes – ears, maybe – that means nothing after the Bebop era, Coltrane, Monk, that sort of thing). In a great speech, Seb explains how jazz began in the flophouses of New Orleans, a means of expression for immigrants who spoke different languages. ‘It’s conflict, and its compromise, and it’s very, very exciting. It’s new every time … and it’s dying.’
This was where things got a bit musically muddled for me. Seb’s tastes seem – like Ken Burns’ TV jazz series – to admit to nothing after about 1970. Yet there’s been a wealth of exciting and innovative jazz since then – and continues to be: jazz is not dying. But his stance is all part of setting up his side of the ‘dream’ thing. His dream is have a jazz club of his own, where he can play his kind of jazz. But along comes another musician, Keith (John Legend), who invites Seb to be in his ‘jazz’ band. Keith believes that jazz should be a relic of an antiquated past, but can be updated through fusion with other genres. ‘How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?’ he rightly challenges Seb. ‘You’re so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk – these guys were revolutionaries. You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.’
Yet Keith’s band, called the Messengers, don’t sound like jazz to me: more like some sort of 80s pop-funk outfit with a stage show complete with dancers. They have a record deal and a tour set, and Keith offers Seb a thousand dollars a week to play electric keyboards with them.
Keith accepts, and goes on the road while Mia – encouraged by Seb – abandons the auditions and her attempts to break into the movies, and instead pursues her dream of writing and performing her own solo stage show.
The film tracks Mia and Seb’s deepening relationship through four seasons, but also follows them as they pursue their dreams in a city portrayed as full of dreamers. And it is clear that their ambitions are pulling them apart. There’s a a pivotal slow-building row between them in Sebastian’s apartment – one of the best scripted and performed I’ve seen – during which the couple slip from cross-purposes to outright hostility with a convincing naturalness. Each has succeeded in changing the other so they can’t live happily ever after.
The film’s coda is decidedly unromantic. Five years have passed since we last saw Seb playing ridiculous neon-lit hand-held keyboards in Keith’s terrible pop band. Meanwhile, Mia has landed the starring role in a film for which she is also the writer, and has been filming in Paris.
We see her now, treated as a celebrity in the coffee shop where she used to work, and at home with her small daughter. She is married now – but not to Sebastian. Out for the evening with her husband, they hear the sound of jazz coming from the doors of a club, and go inside. On the dimly lit stage is Sebastian seated at the piano. At this point, the film dissolves into a Sliding Doors kind of flashback, a version of the last five years in which everything that happened to Mia – her success in film, her marriage, her motherhood – happened with Sebastian. It’s what could have happened in a world where success and devotion to another person were not at odds with each other.
The film is a joy from beginning to end, filled with moments of pure movie magic that echo the kinds of movies that Hollywood used to make in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. But, it is not a nostalgic throwback – nor does it rely on simply referencing films from a bygone era. La La Land is better, and more interesting than that. It tells a modern story, albeit in the style of old Hollywood, but with a modern sensibility.
One of the great moments in this film is when Mia is auditioning for the film role for which she will be accepted, and which will be her breakthrough to stardom. She is asked to improvise a character on the spot, reminiscing about Paris. Her monologue that begins with an aunt who jumped into the Seine soon shifts gear into a song, and one of the film’s best moments:
Leapt, without looking
And She tumbled into the Seine!
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it, again
Here’s to the ones
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
Here’s to the mess